One of the topics I’m preparing for my Sunday School class deals with the purity and unity of the church.
The Biblical ideal is found in 1 Corithians 1:10
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, *but* that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Paul is not pleading for “unity, not uniformity”. He contrasts “divisions” and bing of the “same mind” and “same judgment”. His ideal is not for us to “agree to disagree”. He wants us to be of the same mind and judgment, with no divisions.
Unfortunately, we won’t live up to this ideal. There are four reasons I can think of.
First, there are false teachers among us – wolves in sheep’s clothing. Scripture warns a lot about false teachers.
Second, there are false Christians among us – goats among the sheep. These people are spiritually dead and unable to comprehend spiritual things, so they will cause the church to go astray. They’ll be particuarly susceptible to false teachings, as they won’t have the Spirit of God using the Word of God to correct them.
Third, some genuine Christians are going to be teaching and believing wrong things for whatever personal reason. Maybe they just don’t get the “warm fuzzies” from a doctrine, so they reject it.
And finally, sometimes good, God fearing men and women are just going to have different understandings of Scripture and the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
Just because we won’t live up to the ideal of complete agreement doesn’t mean we can’t work at it. False teachers have to be exposed, rebuked, and cut off. False Christians must be exposed and converted or removed. Christians who refuse to believe the clear teachings of Scripture need to be discipled. And we can have friendly debate with those who just honestly disagree, keeping in mind that we are all friends. We might have to divide to some extent, just out of practical considerations. But just because we don’t go to church together doesn’t mean we are divided.
But the logical question comes up, how do you know when to separate? What issues are worth separating over?
The traditional approach to answering this question goes into detail about “major doctrines” and “minor doctrines” and how you know which is which. And I am honestly attracted to that approach. I like rules. I’m a programmer. Rules are my life! I like unamibuous requirements documents. I wrote a Monopoly game once and found multiple scenarios where the rules didn’t specify what was supposed to happen. I like rules.
But scripture gives us no such rules, so we must not make them up. Reading 1 Corinthians shows just how messed up that church was. The churches addressed in the first few chapters of Revelation had serious problems. Yet there is no warning to the other churches “Stay away from those heretical Corinthians”. Separation was only called for in cases of extreme sin (1 Corinthians 5) and serious doctrinal problems (Galatians 1, 1 John 4).
Again, I really wish we got a comprehensive set of rules instead. That way I could say “See, you violated Section 3, Subsection 7, paragraph 8, line 2. Heretic.” and divide. But we don’t get that.
Jesus said that you’d know people by their fruit. A bad tree bears bad fruit. And I think that principle is at work here. A false teacher isn’t going to stop with a minor heresy. A Christian who refuses to believe uncomfortable things won’t limit himself to questions of soteriology or church order. A legalistic Christian isn’t going to stop with “Thou shalt not watch movies containing noodity”. These ungodly attitudes will manifest themselves in other ways. The false teacher will wind up denying things that will make it obvious that they are heretics. The Christian who only wants to believe in nice things will wind up as a universalist. The Pharisaical Christian will turn the gospel of grace into one of works. The bad tree will blossom and bear lots of bad fruit.
If a genuine Christian who loves God looks honestly at the Bible and comes to a different conclusion than me, I should not want to separate from him (unless it’s something that just makes it impractical for us to “do church” together, in which case we separate as friends.) It’s only when the differences of doctrine and practice stem from ungodliness, that I should separate.
1 John says that the differences between the children of God and the children of Satan will be obvious. I think this is applicable when it comes to false teachings and beliefs. It will become obvious.
So I believe when it comes to separation, if you’re unsure, don’t separate. Hang in there. If the other party is ungodly, their errors will just grow and grow, to the point that you’ll know for sure what to do. On the other hand, if it was just an honest difference of opinion, you’ll see the fruit of the Spirit and the errors will not grow. And in that case, you wouldn’t want to separate.